One thing should be established right away: This is not the first Borg episode. It is, depending on how you count, anywhere from the third to the fifth, with the deciding factor being how you choose to view “Angel One”, “Coming of Age”, “Conspiracy” and/or “The Neutral Zone”. “Q Who” is not a last ditch effort to give a floundering Star Trek: The Next Generation a life-saving jolt of creative restructuring, it itself is the strangled product of a powerless production team trying to sync up and distill half-formed, disparate and mutually contradictory ideas left behind by their predecessors in an attempt to keep the show as it exists now running a little bit longer.
The only reason, for example, the Borg look the way they do is because it would have been too expensive to make them insectoid as Maurice Hurley originally imagined them, thus severing this episode’s link to “Coming of Age”/“Conspiracy”. Furthermore, the writer’s guild strike prevented anyone from penning a proper follow-up to “The Neutral Zone” (not to mention the fact “Angel One” sucked), so the original intent of making the Romulans Red Herring antagonists who have been wrongfooted by the Borg’s unspeakable ruthlessness is similarly abandoned. There is an attempt to tie it back together in the most forgettable of throwaway lines where Worf describes the planet they come across as bearing the exact same signs as the outposts destroyed along the Neutral Zone, but if you managed to catch that you deserve some kind of medal. It’s a longshot to get people to pick up on that something like that *today*, when everyone marathons TV on Netflix for days on end let alone in 1989 when home video was impractical and you’re asking people to remember what happened in one episode from one night over ten months ago.
That’s not to say the team didn’t try their best under the circumstances to make “Q Who” work: They did, it does, and it shows. The team adapted, which is something of a theme for tonight. “Q Who” is a story about Star Trek: The Next Generation trying to reconstruct itself; it doesn’t quite yet know what it’s going to eventually become, but it knows it has to be something other than what it is now. Every actor in play here seems aware things are more than a little off, and they scramble to compensate and adjust in an effort to make something a bit more tonally resonant. As usual, the key is that each character here is consciously playing some sort of role, but what’s crucial and different this time is that they’re also consciously ad-libbing and playing understudy to each other in an attempt to salvage a performance that’s gone off the rails. Q is the most obvious case: He quite clearly wants to go back to the way he was in “Encounter at Farpoint”, as is right and proper, but because Star Trek: The Next Generation doesn’t allow itself negative or otherwise fungible continuity he can’t ignore “Hide and Q”. So he consolidates his two contradictory characterizations into a new one of his own design: And thus, “Q Who” sees the birth of Q-the-Trickster-God.
Guinan too slips into a number of different roles as it becomes necessary: She’s already all but supplanted Deanna Troi in the role of adviser and confidant (which will necessitate Troi’s own functional shift later in the series), and here she also takes up the reins that Q was forced to leave behind as a result of “Hide and Q”. Oh sure, diegetically Guinan is supposed to be a bitter rival of Q’s, but that would also make a degree of sense if we put ourselves in her place and try to find a way to explain this subtle shift textually. Critically, Guinan *agrees* with Q’s damning assessment of humanity’s hubris: It’s most clear during the conference scene where she keeps pleading with the staff to, well, basically not do everything they go about doing, but it’s also evident in the final denouement in Ten-Forward. Revealingly, Whoopi Goldberg plays Guinan the same way she does in “The Measure of a Man”: She prompts Patrick Stewart/Captain Picard to explain why he thinks Q “did the right thing for the wrong reasons”, tacitly challenging the assertion that he didn’t. Like her legendary “that seems a bit harsh” line, her rhetoric and her actual feelings very clearly do not sync up. Guinan is a master of psychology and debate; her words are not what she’s actually trying to convey.
Even Captain Picard, who seems to be the one once again on trial here, is not straightforwardly playing the role he’s supposed to-Rather, he’s carefully, dexterously weaving different narrative functions in an attempt to emphasize and highlight specific, critically important themes. This is not a story about Picard or the Enterprise crew more generally being arrogant and needing to swallow their pride, it’s a story *about* arrogance and blinkered thinking that the crew put on a play to call attention to. What are the common examples cited about Picard’s “arrogance” here? That he stopped to explore the uncharted Delta Quadrant he’d just been flung into instead of retreating at Guinan and Q’s request? The he allowed Commander Riker to take his team over to the Borg Cube? Isn’t “tucking tale” and turning back precisely the thing that Q was mocking him for? Is not trying to learn and take risks precisely what the Enterprise is supposed to be out here doing in the first place at a textual level?
As for turning down Q’s initial request to join the crew, it seems pretty clear that Picard wasn’t being smug, he was being skeptical. He doesn’t trust Q, and has every diegetic right not to trust him because Q has by this point been forced to abdicate the moral high ground he had in “Encounter at Farpoint”. Compare how quickly Picard capitulates to Q’s accusations in that episode once the evidence of history is stacked against him to the haughty tone he takes with him in “Hide and Q” (or indeed the first volume of the DC comic series). Q being forcibly transmuted is yet another example, albeit a particularly big one, of the tumult and unrest Star Trek: The Next Generation has been thrown into. No-one’s quite sure where they stand anymore at this point, and everyone’s just trying to get their bearings, regroup, and decide the next step to take.
One way to look at what’s happening here is as a combination stage production and piece of classical philosophical fiction, as befits the backgrounds of all our esteemed players: Characters are not necessarily behaving in a manner that befits their own interiority, they’re deliberately inserting themselves into particular roles on various sides of a debate that they’ve noticed are vacant and need to be filled pronto to salvage the work’s effectiveness. And yet crucially, as performers they also make it clear to us this is what they’re doing, which, with its overt performativity, calls attention to the shared artifice we’ve mutually agreed to concede for the time being, while at the same time reminding us of the (now-secondary) pre-existing reality of Star Trek: The Next Generation. With none of the regular roles *really* being handled comfortably or effectively, the cast doubles up, shuffles things around and re-orders the production into something a little more coherent. Q becomes the challenger and instigator, Picard his formal rebuttal and Guinan the moral conscience. As for the Borg…The Borg are the topic at hand, an undeniably, irreducible reality that everyone regonises as something that must be acknowledged and discussed.
The Borg are, as is explicitly stated several times in this episode, something the Federation was not yet meant to deal with. They are from the Federation’s future in numerous respects: Most obviously, they are a “future enemy”, but they are also quite literally the Federation’s future. A monoloithic hive-mind that lumbers around blindly absorbing anything it comes into contact with is exactly what Western, modern democratic federalist capitalism is destined to become. Capitalism worships efficiency and democracy touts egalitarianism, and there is *nothing* more efficient or egalitarian than the Borg. They are evolutionary survivors to the Nth degree because they can adapt to anything and everything you throw at them will simply be compensated for and added to the collective whole. The Borg are not evil, they don’t even have a specific motivation or desire one way or another-They simply *are* and *do*. The Borg are the ideological concept of the banality of evil given shape and form. Even their catchphrase is the most blase, nonchalant, matter-of-factual statement ever:
We are the Borg.Lower your shields and surrender your ships.We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.Prepare to be boarded.Resistance is futile.
This isn’t a command or a declaration or a pompous, evil speech, it’s a casual, almost resigned, admission of truism. The Borg don’t care who you are, what you do or what you think, they just exist simply for the sake of existing and perpetuating that existence…Regardless of whatever consequences that might come from the way they go about ensuring it.
Star Trek must, by its very definition, square off against the Borg because so much of Star Trek is wedded to the Federation. And they’re the same damn thing, just in different evolutionary forms. But the pressing question here is whether Star Trek: The Next Generation must be the one to carry this burden. Does Star Trek: The Next Generation deserve to be the one to face down the methodical-yet-relentless march of the Borg Modernity? No. No it doesn’t. Like Guinan says, it’s far too early: The Borg are an enemy for the future, but also, this was supposed to be a golden age for Star Trek. History, in spite of what the textbooks tell you, is not teleological. It’s entirely possible for societies to regress on themselves at certain times. That will happen to Star Trek someday, but, in spite of everything that’s happened in the past twelve months or so, the age we are in now is not one of regression, it’s one of material progress. The Enterprise is a place of constructive sanctuary apart from the retrograde ideals of the Federation. Star Trek: The Next Generation does not deserve to face the Borg because Star Trek: The Next Generation is not arrogant and imperialistic.
Even Q says he was impressed by and proud of Picard asking for his help. And Picard is not embarrassed by the position he’s been placed in or too prideful to admit when he needs support, he simply knows what he has to say and says it. As Q says, a lesser man would have been humiliated to say those words.
But Star Trek: The Next Generation bears the Star Trek name, and its constant production troubles mean its ideals are not taking root as fast as they should be. So it takes the bullet. Captain Picard takes responsibility for the mistakes of the Federation and Star Trek: The Next Generation takes responsibility for the past and future mistakes of Star Trek just as Geordi took responsibility for the mistakes of Sonya Gomez. Once again, Captain Picard and his crew have to stand trial for the crimes of humanity.
(Speaking of Sonya Gomez, absolutely nothing about her works whatsoever. Intended to be yet another major new cast addition, as sure a sign as any of a show that’s gotten dangerously self-conscious, she was meant to bring some “slapstick charm” to “lighten up” the show’s atmosphere. In practice, she comes across as the production team thinking they hadn’t done enough to dismiss and belittle women in “The Dauphin”.)
It’s perhaps too early to tell if this sacrifice was made in vain or not. It is certainly concerning that the Borg become immediately popular precisely because they are antagonists who can’t be reasoned with. It does sometimes feel unpleasantly as if Star Trek fans feel comfortable with the Borg because they can be shot at with impunity and a free conscience. Leaving aside for the moment the even more disturbing sorts of fans who actually *root* for the Borg and think they’re *cool*, it’s as if those very imperialistic tendencies they would pledge to oppose in the Borg are what gives them the zeal to fight them with the righteous fervor they do. And it’s a matter of record that Q’s speeches here about corners of the galaxy breeding unfathomably wonderful and dangerous things has, frighteningly, been used to justify doubling down on Star Trek’s in-built militarism and xenophobia.